TETO Music magazine offeres a unique historical prospective on Little Feat
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Little Feat | USA
A Jack Black look-a-like, a fat man in a bath tub and a cocaine fueled party at the Spanish moon? Sounds like you’re in need of the Rock ‘n’ Roll doctor.
Claimed by Jimmy Page to be “my favorite American group”, Little Feat are a band with their roots deep in the soil of American music. Formed in 1969 by slide guitar extraordinaire Lowell George and keyboardist Bill Payne, the initial line-up was completed with Richie Hayward on drums and bassist Roy Estrada.
The band started out playing mostly blues and roots numbers. A great example includes the track “Willin’”, from their self-titled debut album, which also features slide guitarist Ry Cooder of Buena Vista Social Club. A similar sound can be heard in the successive album Sailin’ Shoes (1972).
However, it was following Estrada’s departure and the addition of Kenny Gradney (bass), Paul Barrere (guitar) and Sam Clayton (percussion) in 1972 that led to a diversion in the band’s musical direction. Heavily influenced by Barrere as a song-writer, the revised Little Feat was more focused on a groove-driven funk sound, not dissimilar to that of prominent North American jazz-fusion groups of the era, such as Miles Davis’ quintet, Herbie Hancock’s group The Headhunters and pianist Chick Corea.
A classic Barrere tune, also featuring himself as lead singer, is “Skin it Back” from the 1974 album Feats Don’t Fail Me Now. A combination of two parts percussive rhythms, one part melodic bass line and a generous shot of Hammond organ yields one of the funkiest foot-tapping cocktails I’ve ever heard. This is made even more so by the tempo, whose accompanied groove seems to perfectly sync up with my nodding head.
Yet, despite changes within the band’s members, one key feature of the Feat’s music that remained constant was the stories they told, and in particular those conveyed by Lowell George. An energetic, colourful character with a voice to match, his lyrics were intriguing (“I don’t even know what I did wrong, but her old man said if I didn’t get out of town I might not live too long”), adventurous (“Well the night that I got into town, was the night the rain froze on the ground”) and often comic (“‘Cause there’s a fat man, in the bath tub with the blues”).
But George was more than a lyricist with a voice capable of soothing the soul. His reputation as a slide guitar expert is legendary – a skill he was able to master thanks, in part, to the addition of Barrere as rhythm guitarist. Indeed, George’s talents extended beyond Little Feat, as both producer and artist. His solo album Thanks, I’ll Eat it Here was released in 1979 and even featured the track “Two Trains”, which was first heard on Little Feat’s 1973 Dixie Chicken.
However, despite his talents and success (or perhaps because of), George fell victim to an all too familiar rock star’s fate. A lifestyle fuelled by alcohol, drugs and “eighteen weeks of spaghetti dinners” took its toll on the musician, who passed away in 1979, just a few months after the release of his solo album.
Tragic and untimely, yes. And for some fans, the loss of the band leader and vibrant character also deemed it the end of Little Feat. But throughout the 70s, Barrere and Payne had established themselves as prominent members of the group (some even suggest their influence had become so strong over the band that this led to George’s original diversion into solo work). Nonetheless, Little Feat disbanded until their reformation nearly a decade later, in 1988. The addition of Craig Fuller (vocals) and Fred Tackett (guitar) filled the Lowell-shaped void, and proved to be key members of the group, with both new recruits contributing much in the way of song-writing.
Two more albums with Fuller followed, Representing the Mambo (1990) and Shake Me Up (1991), before he departed and was replaced in 1993 by the first female member, Shaun Murphy. The subsequent decade saw Little Feat further expand their repertoire with more studio and live albums, notably the 1996 Live from Neon Park. However, it was in 2002 that the Feats began to walk in a new direction, with the start-up of their own record label, Hot Tomato.
Initially, the label released both new studio albums as well as re-releases of legacy live albums from the band’s successful past. A notable example of this includes the band’s first live album, Waiting for Columbus – a deluxe CD re-release of the original double LP featuring some of the greatest tunes the band ever turned out. Two stand out tracks include “All That You Dream” and “Old Folks Boogie”, not least because they exhibit the wizardry of Bill Payne and his diversity as a keyboardist – from the cascading dynamism of “All That You Dream” which features a blistering synth solo to the shuffling boogie-woogie of “Old Folks Boogie”, demonstrating Payne’s exceptional ability to improvise. The Hot Tomato label continues to release Little Feat albums as well as solo albums, including works from Tackett and Payne.
Shaun Murphy was a huge success with the band, both with her vocal talents and her stage presence. However, in 2009, she felt it time to move on and left Little Feat. Just one year on and drummer Hayward, who had been suffering with his health, passed away, and was replaced by Gabe Ford. Even today, Little Feat continue to make records, with their 15th studio album Rooster Rag, released in 2012, being described as “a fin evolution of a respected American band”.
Perhaps it’s only a matter of time before their musical minds begin to make promises their bodies can’t fill – but for now the Feats continue to walk proud, imprinting their unique footprints in the soil of American Rock ‘n’ Roll. It is due to this, that TETO Music has awarded Little Feat their well earned place in this magazine.
Article written by: Oliver Scheuregger